First, let me say there’s really no right or wrong way to venerate your ancestors. But I’m still going to tell you exactly how to do it, because some ways work better than other ways. These ways are my ways. You may well know of or find better ways. If so let me know via comment.
The most common form of ancestral veneration in the West, the only form I know about in fact, is the ancestral altar. What does such an altar look like?
I’ll describe the simplest workable altar first. N.B.: when I say “workable” I do not mean that you’ll be doing necromantic workings at your ancestral altar. If you’re interested in necromancy, you’ll need another altar for it. The ancestral altar is strictly for veneration.
A permanent as possible flat surface (the dead do not like to be moved around much), a bowl for water, a white candle, a symbol of your ancestors’ religion — that’s all you’ll need to start out with. If some of your ancestors were Catholics and some were Protestants, say, maybe two ancestral altars would be better. I honestly don’t know, because all my ancestors for a long way back were Protestants. The point here is that the religious beliefs of the more recent generations of your dead come first in this work and not your own. If your ancestors were Protestants the best religious symbols are a plain wooden cross and/or a Bible, preferably the translation they read. I use a King James version. If your ancestors were Catholics, a crucifix will do nicely.
Authorities differ on what’s the best place to put an ancestral altar, so just let me say avoid the bedroom if possible. The ancestral altar will eventually become a place of strong connection, often not just with your own ancestors but other spirits — both undesirables and ones you may well grow to know and love. If you want peaceful sleep you don’t need the dead clamoring at you for attention all night long.
So what do you do with this minimal version of the ancestral altar? First decide how often you’re going to practice veneration. Every day? Weekly? Shoot for the same time and day if possible, but this is Real Life so just do the best you can. —Pull yourself up a chair because you’ll be here a while. Fill the bowl with fresh water. Light the white candle. Knock either once or three times on the altar with your knuckles and tell your ancestors who you are. Talk to them for a minute or two, just as if they were there, then read some from the Bible, or say a Hail Mary. Maybe sing a hymn. It’s a good idea to compose your own poem of praise to them, but I haven’t gotten around to that myself. —Then talk to your dead about your problems, your joys, tell them about your life, your work, your living family.
Now comes the important part. Just sit there paying attention. It’s a little like meditation. If your mind wanders, return it to paying attention to the altar and your own consciousness. Don’t talk, just sit. Shoot for thirty minutes total time you spend at the altar. Fifteen minutes is barely an absolute minimum. When you’re done rap once or thrice on the altar and say good-bye. —That’s all there is to the minimal version.
How do you elaborate on this minimal version? By turning it into a boveda or mesa blanca (mesa branca, if you’re into Portuguese). Cover your altar with a new white cloth, or a white cloth that belonged to one of your ancestors. Add photos of your grandparents or great grandparents, dead aunts and uncles. Don’t put pictures of anyone alive on your altar. Avoid photos of ancestors who hated you or hated everybody in life. Put things your ancestors enjoyed in life there, coffee, cigarettes or cigars, some favorite food, maybe some fresh flowers. Only don’t salt the food. The dead don’t like salt. I wouldn’t recommend alcohol either. You don’t want your dead to get drunk. Yes, in fact, the dead can get drunk. —Most importantly add to the number of bowls of fresh water on your altar. Some say seven bowls, some say nine, some say eight with a larger bowl in the midst of the others. You’ll have to suit yourself here. Now you have a minimal boveda. You can add to it more than I’ve written here. For suggestions on an even more elaborate altar see the sources at the end of this post.
What about malevolent spirits that may be drawn to your altar? Their attention can be drawn away by placing a bowl under the altar filled with alcohol, the drinking kind not the rubbing kind, coffee and tobacco. When your 30 minutes are up and you’ve said good-bye, get rid of the contents 0f this bowl and fill it with salt and return it. Do this every day or week. If this doesn’t work, cense your altar with frankincense and put some kind of blessing oil on the cross or crucifix. Van Van Oil is a good all around blessing oil. I suppose Abramelin or Temple Oil might work better, I honestly don’t know. Command the spirit in the name of God to depart, no matter whether you believe in God or not.
You can also try luring it away by setting out a glass of whiskey or other alcoholic beverage and setting it further and further away until the spirit is gone.
You may be thinking I’m crazy. That the dead won’t come, or that the dead are just gone forever, or that you aren’t gifted with the Second Sight. —That’s one of the most useful things about your altar. It will teach you to hear and feel the presence of spirits and you will learn how to communicate with them, over time. You will know they’re there.
Why are you doing this? It will improve your life is why, in addition to improving your far more than five senses. Your dead can become powerful allies. You should find your life improving in big and little ways, more and more over time, as your connection with them deepens.
About that connection. Dealing with the dead will inevitably creep some people out. That’s OK. Nobody must have an ancestral altar. —As first, foremost and always a Hekatean, I personally find the company of the dead at times a bit overwhelming but always enjoyable.
And that’s the end of my how-to on ancestral altars. For further information you might go to Scribd.com and search for boveda or mesa blanca. Also the Curious Curandera has a 14 page document free to download at her website.
Have fun and learn from your dead. You dealings with the dead should be, as should your life in general, fun and adventurous. It may seem solemn, but some adventures just are solemn affairs.
Best of luck and much love.